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DNA changing the way family histories are researched

By John Daley | Posted - Feb. 22, 2010 at 11:18 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY -- There are some revolutionary new developments in the world of researching your ancestry, and it's all possible because of a simple test that unlocks the unique information we all carry around inside of us.


Molecular Genealogy, aka "Genetic Genealogy," is the application of DNA to traditional genealogical research.

They are essential human questions: Who are you and where do you come from? Utah geneticist Scott Woodward's journey to find out started a decade ago when he got an unexpected call in the middle of the night from philanthropist billionaire James Sorenson, who asked him if it was possible to map out the DNA of Norway.

"The reason was that he traced his genealogy back in to Norway, and he was very interested in finding out how he connected," Woodward explained.

That call triggered a breathtaking effort to collect two things: DNA samples from people around the world -- gathered by a simple mouth rinse -- and family pedigrees.

"You can take bits and pieces of anybody in the world and find common connections," Woodward said.

Now, more than 100,000 samples have been collected. They form a huge database, publicly available through the company GeneTree.com. It's a genetic roadmap of human history.

What is... DNA?
DNA contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms. It encodes the complete genetic blueprint of human beings and is what makes the billions of people on the planet unique, yet at the same time, genetically similar to their parents and ancestors. -SMGF

"We really are one big family. That is what our DNA is telling us," Woodward said.

DNA tells us a lot surprising information; for me, on both my dad's and my mom's side.

"In your case, both your Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA are relatively rare; so because of that, we were able to find some very tight matches," Woodward said.

Family lore has long included a history tracing back to Ireland and England in the early 1800s. We knew that, but the genetic-genealogy link uncovered previously unknown relatives, a connection to the Basque country of northern Spain, branches of the tree entirely new to us, and a head-scratching mystery.


Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation has collected more than 100,000 DNA samples and four-generation pedigree charts from volunteers in more than 100 countries around the world.

My family's genetic roots go back thousands of years ago to a line of ancestors from the Mediterranean and North Africa. So, how did my family end up in Ireland where that genetic type is rare? A genetic researcher from Stanford has a theory.

"It could be quite possible that one of your paternal ancestors became part of the Roman Empire and maybe ended up in Western Europe," explained Dr. Peter Underhill, senior research scientist in genetics at the Sanford University School of Medicine.

"We see people over and over again being surprised about where they came from," Woodward said. "Everybody in the world is connected."

A number of companies sell the genetic test, which costs an average of $150. You take the test, mail your sample in, and results come back in a few weeks. With them, you can link with possible relatives through a protected website.

E-mail: jdaley@ksl.com

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